By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Every rabbi has an airport story. Some rabbis tell so many incredible stories of providential encounters on airplanes and in airports that I sometimes wonder if it is physically possible for them to have traveled on as many airplanes as they have stories! Why am I going on about airplanes? Because this is the week of Lech Lecha, when our father Avraham was instructed by G‑d to leave his birthplace and journey to a foreign land that would, one day, be promised to his children. Ever since then, the Jews have been a nation of wanderers. Our ancestors’ travels shaped our future destiny. Their journeys became our journeys. And the geographical upheavals that the Jewish people have been subjected to over the centuries are mirror images of the footsteps of our forebears.
Anyway, here is an airplane story of my own. Some years back, I was traveling from Johannesburg to Cape Town to join then-president Nelson Mandela at a banquet honoring South Africa’s late Chief Rabbi C.K. Harris and also to deliver a few lectures at various synagogues. They say “getting there is half the fun,” but on this occasion nothing could have been further from the truth. First there was a system malfunction on the aircraft and with it a 30-minute delay. Then there was a missing passenger who delayed takeoff for a further three hours until he was discovered in the airport pub somewhat uncertain of where exactly he was going. Eventually, we landed after 10 p.m., and I missed the synagogue lecture that I was scheduled to give at 8 p.m. earlier that evening.
And why might you be interested in my story? Because I found it fascinating to watch the reactions of the different passengers on the plane while we were waiting impatiently to take off. Some people got angry. They were screaming and shouting and giving the poor flight attendants a hard time. Others simply sulked in silence. I couldn’t help thinking what a lesson this was on the subject of Divine Providence and who really runs the world. I had given myself ample time to get to my 8 p.m. lecture punctually. But clearly, G‑d had other plans.
So who is actually in control? The best-laid plans of mice and men don’t necessarily get us to our destinations on time — even if we get to the airport early. I could have become angry myself. I was upset. It was quite a disappointment to have missed my lecture. Such a thing had never happened to me before. But my conscience was clear. I had left more than enough time to make it. The fact that I did not was not in my hands. Who runs the world? The One Above. If, for some reason known only to Him, He wants me not to give the 8 o’clock lecture, then no amount of huffing and puffing on my part will make one bit of difference.
While pondering on this philosophical perspective, I found myself becoming more relaxed and actually quite serene about the whole frustrating experience. We must do our share; we must give it our best shot. But beyond that, it’s G‑d’s department. If we can develop this attitude — and, believe me, I also need to develop it further — we will all be better able to cope with the disappointments we so often face in life, and even with real tzaros we may sadly encounter. It’s all in His hands. If He decided the plane would be delayed, then there must be a good reason.
So there really isn’t any major drama in my airplane story. Did I bump into a Jewish passenger and change his life forever? Sorry to disappoint you, but I did not. What I did experience was a personal confirmation of something that I had always believed theologically. From my little episode on the airplane, a basic premise of Jewish belief was reinforced in my own mind and heart. So even if nothing amazing occurred, I became far more aware that G‑d, and not I, is the controller of this universe. I may still have no idea why this delay was part of His vast eternal plan, but I know that there was a reason. I may never discover what that reason was, but that there was a reason I am convinced.
When we understand this, we will have learned the art of acceptance. When we learn acceptance, we lead calmer, more tranquil lives, without all the unnecessary anxiety we create in our own minds. It is a conviction that has helped me through many disappointments in my own life, from the small stuff to the more serious. I think the famous Serenity Prayer is quite in keeping with Jewish tradition: “G‑d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” May all your journeys be safe and successful, and may you get to your destinations on time. And even if you don’t, don’t sweat it. He is in charge.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.